Abel Ferrara
Abel Ferrara at the 2017 Cannes Film Festival
Born (1951-07-19) July 19, 1951 (age 72)
The Bronx, New York City, U.S.
Other namesJimmy Boy L, Jimmy Laine
Occupation(s)Director, screenwriter, actor, producer, editor, cinematographer
Years active1971–present
Nancy Ferrara
(m. 1982, divorced)
  • Cristina Chiriac

Abel Ferrara ([ferˈraːra]; born July 19, 1951)[1] is an American filmmaker, known for the provocative and often controversial content in his movies and his use and redefinition of neo-noir imagery. A long-time independent filmmaker, some of his best known movies include the New York-set, gritty crime thrillers The Driller Killer (1979), Ms .45 (1981), King of New York (1990), Bad Lieutenant (1992) and The Funeral (1996), chronicling violent crime in urban settings with spiritual overtones.

Ferrara also worked in a wide array of genres, including the sci-fi remake Body Snatchers (1993), cyberpunk thriller New Rose Hotel (1998), the religious drama Mary (2005), the black comedy Go Go Tales (2007), and the biopic Pasolini (2014), as well as in several documentary filmmaking projects.

Early life

Ferrara was born in the Bronx of Italian and Irish descent.[2] He was raised Catholic, which subsequently influenced much of his work.[3] At 8 years old, he moved to Peekskill in Westchester County, New York and he started making movies at Rockland Community College.[4] Later, he attended the film conservatory at SUNY Purchase, where he directed several short films.[5]


Early work 1971-1981

Ferrara (far right) in The Driller Killer

Ferrara studied at the San Francisco Art Institute; one of his teachers and influences there was the famous avant-garde director Rosa von Praunheim.[6] In the early 1970s, while still in art school, Ferrara directed a number of independently produced short films which included The Hold Up and Could This Be Love. Finding himself out of work after leaving film school in 1976, Ferrara directed his first feature film which was a pornographic film titled, 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy, using a pseudonym.[7] Starring with his then-girlfriend, he recalled having to step in front of the camera for one scene to perform in a hardcore sex scene: "It's bad enough paying a guy $200 to fuck your girlfriend, then he can't get it up."[8]

Ferrara first drew a cult following with his second feature film, an exploitation movie titled The Driller Killer (1979), an urban slasher film about an artist (played by the director himself) who goes on a killing spree with a power drill. In the United Kingdom, the movie made it on a list of "video nasties" created by moral crusaders that led to prosecutions under the Obscene Publications Act 1959 and to the passing of new legislation which forced all video releases to appear before the British Board of Film Classification for rating.[9]

The director's next feature was Ms .45 (1981), a "rape revenge" movie about a mute garment worker turned murderer (Zoë Tamerlis). Reviewers called it "a provocative, disreputable movie, well worth seeing".[10]

Rise to international fame 1984-1998

In 1984, Ferrara was hired to direct Fear City, starring Melanie Griffith, Billy Dee Williams, Rae Dawn Chong and María Conchita Alonso. When a "kung fu slasher" stalks and murders young women who work in a seedy Times Square strip club, a disgraced boxer portrayed by Tom Berenger uses his fighting skills to defeat the killer.[11]

Ferrara worked on two Michael Mann-produced television series, directing the two-hour pilot for Crime Story (aired September 18, 1986), starring Dennis Farina,[12] and two episodes of the series Miami Vice.[13]

King of New York (1990) stars Christopher Walken as gangster Frank White, Laurence Fishburne, Wesley Snipes, David Caruso and Giancarlo Esposito. The movie received overall mixed reviews, but Ferrara was praised for his strong command of mood and style. Critic Roger Ebert wrote, "What Ferrara needs for his next film is a sound screenplay."[14]

Bad Lieutenant (1992) credits Ferrara and actress Zoë Tamerlis, who plays the woman who helps the Lieutenant freebase heroin in the movie, as co-writers of the script, but Tamerlis claimed that she wrote it alone.[15][16] Bad Lieutenant received Spirit Awards nominations for Best Director and Best Actor, and despite its controversial content, the movie was lauded by critics. Director Martin Scorsese named it one of his top 10 films of the 1990s.[17]

In 1993, Ferrara was hired for two Hollywood studio movies: another remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, titled Body Snatchers (1993), for Warner Bros.; and Dangerous Game (1993), starring Keitel and Madonna, for MGM.

In the mid-1990s Ferrara directed two well-received independent movies: The Addiction (1995),[18] photographed in black-and-white, stars Lili Taylor as a philosophy student who succumbs to a vampire as she studies the problem of evil and philosophical pedagogy, represented by the most violent events of the 20th century. The movie also features Christopher Walken, Annabella Sciorra, Edie Falco, Kathryn Erbe and Michael Imperioli. It was co-produced by Russell Simmons.

The Funeral (1996),[19] starring Walken, Sciorra, Chris Penn, Isabella Rossellini, Benicio del Toro, Vincent Gallo and Gretchen Mol, was nominated for five Independent Spirit Awards including Best Director.

Following the success of The Funeral, Ferrara had an infamous interview with Conan O'Brien on October 23, 1996. Ferrara was believed to be intoxicated and struggled through the interview, often slurring and covering his face as well as waving around a cigarette. O'Brien would later state that Ferrara was his "worst guest ever".[20] Eventually, O'Brien revealed to Ferrara's frequent collaborator Willem Dafoe that Ferrara "ran away" and that the segment producer had to "run down the street" to catch him and bring him back to the set. Dafoe said to O'Brien, "You did your best...and so did he!"

After making The Blackout (1997) with Matthew Modine and Dennis Hopper, he contributed to the omnibus television movie Subway Stories. Ferrara then made New Rose Hotel (1998), which reunited him with Christopher Walken.

Ferrara in 2008

Move to Europe 2001 - present

Ferrara returned three years later with 'R Xmas (2001), which starred Drea de Matteo and Ice-T. He recorded commentaries for Driller Killer[21] and King of New York[22] and made Mary (2005), a religious-themed multi-plot movie starring Juliette Binoche, Matthew Modine, Forest Whitaker, Heather Graham, Marion Cotillard, and Stefania Rocca. Mary premiered at the Venice Film Festival in 2005. It swept the awards ceremony, garnering the Grand Jury Prize, SIGNIS Award and two others. It was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival.[23]

In 2007, Ferrara directed Go Go Tales a comedy with Modine, Bob Hoskins and Willem Dafoe that premiered at the Cannes Film Festival but was not shown in the United States until a special screening at the Anthology Film Archives in 2011.[24]

In 2009, Jekyll and Hyde was set to star Forest Whitaker and 50 Cent. After disagreements with Warner Bros., the movie was shelved in 2010.[25]

In 2009, Napoli, Napoli, Napoli premiered out of competition at the 66th Venice International Film Festival.[26] The docudrama received little attention and poor reviews but Werner Herzog's reboot Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans was selected for competition at the prestigious festival. Asked about the Herzog film, Ferrara was quoted widely saying "I wish these people die in hell".[27]

In September 2011, 4:44 Last Day on Earth, starring Willem Dafoe and Shanyn Leigh, premiered at the main competition of the 68th Venice International Film Festival.[28]

Ferrara's Welcome to New York, a fictionalized version of the Dominique Strauss-Kahn sexual assault case starring Gérard Depardieu and Jacqueline Bisset, was released on video on demand in 2014.[29][30] Ferrara's Pasolini (2014) about the titular Italian director stars Willem Dafoe.[31]

After a 4-year long hiatus, Ferrara came back in 2019 with Tommaso, a new feature starring Dafoe and set in Rome. The film had its world premiere at the 72nd Cannes Film Festival on 20 May 2019. It was released in the United States by Kino Lorber.

The following year, with Siberia (2020), Ferrara and Dafoe collaborated for the sixth time. Inspired by Carl Jung's The Red Book, the script was written by Ferrara and Chris Zois.[32][33] The film had its world premiere at the main competition of the 70th Berlin International Film Festival, on 24 February 2020. It was released in the United States by Lionsgate in 2021. Shortly after Ferrara directed the documentary Sportin' Life, about the beginning of quarantine measures in Europe a few days after the Berlinale premiere of Siberia, during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.[34] The documentary had its world premiere at the 77th Venice Film Festival on 4 September 2020.

Since 2020 he has interpreted Gabriele Tinti's poetry giving voice to the masterpieces in the Galleria Nazionale d'Arte Antica, Pinacoteca di Brera, Museo Nazionale di San Marco, Ca' d'Oro, Musée Jacquemart-André and Museo Nazionale Romano[35][36]

In August 2021, Zeros and Ones, starring Ethan Hawke, had its world premiere at the main competition of the 74th Locarno Film Festival, during the festival Ferrara won the Best Direction Award.[37] The film was released in limited theaters and on demand by Lionsgate on November 19, 2021.

In 2022, Ferrara's Padre Pio, starring Shia LaBeouf and Asia Argento, premiered at the "Giornate degli Autori" section of the 79th Venice Film Festival on September 2, 2022. The film was released in the United States by Gravitas Ventures on June 2, 2023. During the film's production, LeBeouf notably converted to Catholicism.

Personal life

Ferrara is married to Cristina Chiriac and they have a daughter, Anna.[38][39] He was previously married to Nancy Ferrara.[40] Ferrara has two adopted children: Endira and Lucy.[41][42] He was also in a romantic relationship with actress Shanyn Leigh.[43][44]

Ferrara lives in Rome, Italy.[45] He moved there following the 9/11 attacks because it was easier for him to find financing for his movies in Europe.[46]

Raised Catholic, Ferrara started describing himself as Buddhist in 2007.[47] When asked if he had converted, Ferrara responded,

It’s not a conversion, you’re not a card-carrying Catholic, you’re brought up Italian, so you’re brought up with those images. All the great art is financed by the Church so they have a monopoly on the paintings, and they’re powerful images, the whole nine yards of it. But Jesus was a living man, and so were Buddha and Muhammad. These three guys changed the fucking world, with their passion and love of other human beings. All these guys had was their word, and they came from fucking nowhere. I’m not saying Nazareth is nowhere – I’m sure Jesus came from a very cool neighbourhood.

— Abel Ferrara[48]

Ferrara said in 2020 that Buddhism "is a practice for me, not a religion".[49] In 2022, he stated he considered Padre Pio his "spirituality model".[50]


Influences on Ferrara's work include "the Stones and Dylan...DaVinci, Stanley Kubrick, Woody Allen and all of the great New York film makers".[51] He has also credited Pier Paolo Pasolini and Rainer Werner Fassbinder as influences.[52][53][54]


Short film

Year Title Director Writer Actor Notes
1971 Nicky's Film Yes Yes
1972 The Hold Up Yes Yes Yes
1973 Could It Be Love Yes Yes
2010 OneDreamRush: Dream Piece Yes
2012 No Saints Yes
My Big-Assed Mother Yes Role: Charles Bukowski
2017 Hans Yes Yes

Feature films

Year Title Director Writer Notes
1976 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy Yes Pornographic film
Credited as Jimmy Boy L.
1979 The Driller Killer Yes
1981 Ms .45 Yes
1984 Fear City Yes
1987 China Girl Yes
1989 Cat Chaser Yes
1990 King of New York Yes
1992 Bad Lieutenant Yes Yes
1993 Body Snatchers Yes
Dangerous Game Yes
1995 The Addiction Yes
1996 The Funeral Yes
1997 The Blackout Yes Yes
1998 New Rose Hotel Yes Yes
2001 'R Xmas Yes Yes
2005 Mary Yes Yes
2007 Go Go Tales Yes Yes
2011 4:44 Last Day on Earth Yes Yes
2014 Welcome to New York Yes Yes
Pasolini Yes Yes [55]
2019 Tommaso Yes Yes
2020 Siberia Yes Yes
2021 Zeros and Ones Yes Yes
2022 Padre Pio Yes Yes

Acting roles

Year Title Role Notes
1976 9 Lives of a Wet Pussy Old Man
1979 The Driller Killer Reno Credited as "Jimmy Laine"
1981 Ms .45 1st rapist
1993 Body Snatchers
2006 Exes Cain
2009 Daddy Longlegs Robber
2014 Don Peyote Taxi cab driver
2016 Sculpt
2017 Black Butterfly Pat
2018 Buon Lavoro [56]

Documentary films

Year Title Director Writer Himself Notes Ref.
1977 Not Guilty: For Keith Richards Yes Short
2008 Chelsea on the Rocks Yes Yes
2009 Napoli Napoli Napoli Yes Yes
2010 Mulberry St. Yes
2017 Alive in France Yes Yes Yes
Piazza Vittorio Yes Yes [57]
2018 Talking with the Vampires Yes Yes Yes Short [58]
2019 The Projectionist Yes Yes [59]
2020 Sportin' Life Yes Yes Yes [60]
2024 Turn in the Wound Yes


Year Title Notes
1985 Miami Vice "The Home Invaders", "The Dutch Oven"
1986 Crime Story Pilot episode
2012 Pizza Connection Web series

TV movies

Year Title Notes
1986 The Gladiator
1988 The Loner
1997 Subway Stories: Tales from the Underground Segment "Love on the A Train"

Music video

Year Title Director Writer
1996 Mylène Farmer: California Yes
1999 Ben Folds Five: Don't Change Your Plans Yes
2004 Abenaa: "Rain" Yes Yes

Recurring collaborators

Ferrara has recast many of the same actors in his movies, most notably Christopher Walken, Harvey Keitel and Willem Dafoe.[61] Other actors he has recast include Annabella Sciorra and Matthew Modine as well as character actors such as Victor Argo, Paul Calderón and Giancarlo Esposito.[62] David Caruso is another one of Ferrara's frequent film collaborators.[63] Ms .45 (1981) star Zoë Lund collaborated with Ferrara again on Bad Lieutenant (1992), which she co-wrote.[64] Gretchen Mol has worked with Ferrara twice.[65] Forest Whitaker starred in Ferrara's movies Mary (2005) and Body Snatchers (1993).[66]

1979 1981 1986 1987 1990 1992 1993 1995 1996 1997 1998 2001 2005 2007 2008 2009 2011 2014 2019 2020 2021 2022
Asia Argento ☒N ☒N ☒N
Victor Argo ☒N ☒N ☒N ☒N ☒N ☒N
Paul Calderón ☒N ☒N ☒N ☒N
David Caruso ☒N ☒N ☒N
Cristina Chiriac ☒N ☒N ☒N ☒N
Willem Dafoe ☒N ☒N ☒N ☒N ☒N ☒N
Giancarlo Esposito ☒N ☒N
Abel Ferrara ☒N ☒N ☒N
Anna Ferrara ☒N ☒N ☒N
Ethan Hawke ☒N ☒N
Paul Hipp ☒N ☒N ☒N ☒N ☒N
Dennis Hopper ☒N ☒N
Harvey Keitel ☒N ☒N
Shanyn Leigh ☒N ☒N ☒N ☒N ☒N
Zoë Lund ☒N ☒N
Matthew Modine ☒N ☒N ☒N
Gretchen Mol ☒N ☒N
James Russo ☒N ☒N
Riccardo Scamarcio ☒N ☒N
Annabella Sciorra ☒N ☒N ☒N
Christopher Walken ☒N ☒N ☒N ☒N
Forest Whitaker ☒N ☒N

Beginning with The Driller Killer in 1979 through The Projectionist in 2019, Ferrara most frequently worked with Ken Kelsch as his cinematographer.[67]

Awards and nominations

Year Nominated work Award Result Ref.
1993 Bad Lieutenant Independent Spirit Award for Best Director Nominated
1993 Body Snatchers Palme d'Or Nominated
1995 The Addiction Golden Berlin Bear Nominated
1996 The Funeral Independent Spirit Award for Best Director Nominated
1998 The Blackout Worst Director - Yoga Awards Won [68]


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